What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which people buy tickets for a chance to win a prize. The prizes vary but can include cash, goods, services, or even real estate. People usually play the lottery for fun but it can also be used to raise money for charity or public projects. The word lottery comes from the Old French word loterie, meaning “fateful allotment” or “chance distribution.” People have been using lotteries to raise funds for centuries. For example, Moses used a lottery to divide land among the Israelites, and Roman emperors gave away property and slaves by lottery.

The first recorded lottery was a system of numbered slips that resembled keno, which was developed during the Chinese Han dynasty between 205 and 187 BC. It was a popular form of entertainment at dinner parties and is thought to have helped finance the construction of the Great Wall. In colonial America, more than 200 lotteries were sanctioned between 1744 and 1776 and were an important source of revenue for both public and private ventures, including roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, and bridges. Some lotteries were used to raise money for the Continental Congress and the American Revolution. The founders of Princeton and Columbia universities were also beneficiaries of lotteries, as was the Boston Mercantile Journal in 1758.

In the United States, state governments regulate lotteries, and many have a lottery division that oversees the selection of retailers, trains employees at those stores to use the terminals, sells and redeems tickets, and distributes prizes to winners. These divisions are often tasked with promoting the lottery and encouraging more people to play, especially by offering high-tier prizes. They are also expected to pay winners quickly and fairly.

Despite the controversies surrounding gambling, there is a strong public demand for the opportunity to win a prize. In fact, a recent survey showed that more Americans prefer to gamble than play sports, movies, or music. However, the majority of people still consider it ethical to bet on a lottery only if it is done legally.

Although the term lottery has a negative connotation, it is generally used as a positive term when describing something that depends on luck or chance: The stock market is considered a lottery because you have to pay to participate, but the outcome could be very different from what you expect. Likewise, many people describe their life as a lottery: “Life’s a lottery,” they say, meaning that it all depends on luck. These examples have been automatically selected and may contain sensitive content. This dictionary is part of the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, and is copyright 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.